Marker #1335 "Early Gun Shop Site"

Historical Marker #1335 in Mercer County notes the location of the gun shop established by Benjamin Mills in 1840s.

Born in New York, Benjamin Mills—who usually went by Ben—moved to Kentucky in the early 1840s. Where he learned how to make guns is not known, although there is a possibility that his father was a gunmaker. Mills established a gun shop in Harrodsburg in 1844, a few years before the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexican War. For over three decades, Mills produced some of the finest crafted riles in all of Kentucky.

Mills originally settled in Stanford before he purchased land from Beriah Magoffin Sr.—father of governor Beriah Magoffin Jr. (1859-1862)—in Harrodsburg in 1844. That year, Mills allowed his customers to test out his rifles by firing at a mark that he had placed in the backyard of his gun shop. Customers must have been pleased with Mills’ craftsmanship, as his business steadily grew and his personal wealth accumulated. Tax records from Mercer County indicate that his property increased in value from $1,600 in 1846 to $5,500 a decade later.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Harrodsburg was noted for its marksmen. Shortly after the U.S.-Mexican War, a group of men established the Boone Club, an organization that held shooting matches and that sponsored an annual hunting trip to the Cumberlands. The Boone Club drew its membership from Mercer, Franklin, and Jefferson counties and was founded by Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham, a famous marksman.

In 1881, Graham told a Cincinnati reporter about a shooting match held in Harrodsburg in the early 1850s. Graham recollected that there was a gunmaker and marksman in St. Louis named Dimmick who had issued a challenge to all Kentuckians after declaring “Kentucky a humbug.” Graham ran into Dimmick at Mills’ gun shop and refused to wager on a potential match. Beriah Magoffin Jr.—a member of the Boone Club—surreptitiously provided Dimmick with the wager that Dimmick had demanded. On the day of the match, however, Dimmick begged Graham to cancel as “he had a wife and children to support.” When Graham refused to back down, Dimmick fled back to St. Louis. Graham told the reporter that this is what led the Boone Club to offer a $10,000 prize to any marksman who could best him.

Mills’ shop continued to thrive until the late 1850s. In 1858, Mills accepted a position as Master Armorer at the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, located in Virginia (in what would later become West Virginia). Mills sent in a letter of resignation a year later, to Secretary of War John B. Floyd. Apparently unhappy with his position, Mills desired to return to Kentucky. Before he departed, however, John Brown launched a raid in October of 1859. Mills was held hostage for a day, before US forces arrived and ended the assault. Mills testified at Brown’s trial and relocated back to Harrodsburg with his family. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Mills’ business quickly declined.

By 1863, Mills had largely abandoned the gun-making business. That year, Mills purchased property in Harrodsburg to establish a distillery. Little is known about this business, except for the fact that Mills purchased 100 acres and soon ran into financial trouble. Apparently, an unprofitable business, the government issued a warrant for Mills in 1865 for unpaid taxes and by 1867 most of his assets in Harrodsburg had been seized. Mills’ wife, Jane, was permitted to remain and live at the sight of the old gun shop. In the 1870s, Ben relocated to Lexington where he produced guns with his son Charles under the name of B. Mills & Son, Lexington, KY. He died in 1888 and is buried in Harrodsburg.

The marker reads:

Early Gun Shop Site

Here Benjamin Mills made some of the finest rifles in US. ca. 1844-1863. His muzzle loaders were famous for their superb accuracy at a time when craftsmanship made all the difference. Used by Dr. Christopher Graham, conceded to be the best target shot in world, and by the Boone Shooting Club, of which Graham and Gov. Beriah Magoffin were members.

Famed Gunsmith

In the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, John Brown captured armorer Benjamin Mills. Mills was rescued the next day by Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee. Mills testified at Brown’s trial as a defense witness, then returned to Harrodsburg to resume his own gunsmithing business. Mills declined to join either side during the ensuing Civil War.